When Elizabeth Bell Carroll heard the news today, she took a melancholy stroll with friends along a stretch of beach grown discordant with the mechanical sounds of search. In a kind of reverie, she joined the hunt of helicopters thumping overhead, daydreaming she might stumble on John F. Kennedy Jr. and his party collapsed in a dune.
"Some of us were just walking along the shore, hoping against hope to find the three of them sitting there, exhausted but alive," she said.
Carroll still stood vigil on a bluff as the sun set tonight on Martha's Vineyard's western cliffs. With dusk, the Coast Guard suspended its visual aerial search, but Carroll did not feel like leaving. "The excitement acts as a barrier at first to the reality of the loss, but now it is setting in," she said.
Carroll kept thinking of the debris from Kennedy's doomed Piper Saratoga, washed ashore a few hundred yards to the south, about a mile from the secluded beach estate that Kennedy and his sister, Caroline, inherited from their mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
The Coast Guard said the debris included an aircraft headrest and a black canvas garment bag bearing the business card of passenger Lauren Bessette, the sister of Kennedy's wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy.
Sunbather Damon Seligson, a Boston lawyer, told reporters he spotted the bag -- the first plain evidence of the aircraft's fate -- and swam out 30 yards to retrieve it. "It was a sinking feeling, a pounding feeling in my chest," he said. "We pulled it up. We put it where we were sitting and we called the police to let them know."
All day long, thousands of curiosity seekers streamed to a town, known also as Aquinnah, that is home to only 325 residents year round. With four police officers on the payroll and every volunteer firefighter already called in for crowd control, Gay Head begged for help from nearby towns to close off access to the beach.
Some onlookers -- like Carroll, a neighbor -- knew Kennedy, if only from a few smiling words as he bicycled or skated through town. Like most everyone here, she guarded his privacy, pretending ignorance when strangers came looking for the hidden gate to the old Onassis compound. "He always distanced himself from the bad boys of the Kennedy clan," she said. "He carried a great burden on his shoulders, and carried it exceedingly well."
Others knew him not at all, but many felt they did. "John in my opinion was a very good person, just his presence, how he and his wife carried themselves, how he put so much work into George magazine," said Ellen Caron, 31, a Providence schoolteacher who came looking for sun on her favorite beach and found a government diver and police requesting politely that she leave.
The crowds were largely respectful, said police Cpl. R. Belain, and only journalists tried to sneak past official barriers to the beach. Many speculated about the Kennedy clan's tragic burden, and commiserated from across the Vineyard Sound with a bride-to-be -- John's cousin Rory -- who postponed her wedding this evening. The youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, she cradled her dying brother in a 1997 New Year's Eve ski accident that took his life.
Few wanted to cast blame today, but several onlookers said they wished there were not so much derring-do -- some said recklessness -- among the Kennedy men. John F. Kennedy Jr. was said to be limping from a hang-gliding accident when he boarded his plane Friday night, and most of the crowd here knew he was still a novice pilot. It was dark and hazy as Kennedy neared the island, the Coast Guard said, and Kennedy was not certified to fly by instruments.
"It does seem it was terribly risky," said Michael Marino.
Martha's Vineyard is keenly aware of its relationship to the Kennedy legend's darker side, with Sunday marking the 30th anniversary of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's deadly driving error on the Chappaquiddick bridge.
"It's like a curse, the Kennedys and Martha's Vineyard," said David Dibble, a summer resident.
Steve Grossman, who stepped down in March as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and who, with his parents, has long political ties to the Kennedy family, had lunch at the Kennedy compound a week ago with Ethel Kennedy and her daughter Kerry Kennedy Cuomo.
Grossman said Ethel Kennedy was looking forward to the wedding of her youngest daughter, Rory. As they strolled the grounds outside the clapboard house, Grossman said Ethel Kennedy pointed to a swath of lawn, saying, " `Just think of it. The wedding will be right there a week from today.' " Tonight, a huge white tent covered the spot, bathed in the glow of dusk as a flag snapped at attention.
" `It doesn't happen very often anymore. How many Kennedys will be there?' " Grossman said she asked her daughter. " `Seventy-five?' "
Kerry replied, " `No, more than 100.' " Grossman recalled.
" `I'm so looking forward to next Saturday,' " Grossman quoted Ethel Kennedy as saying. "She seemed so upbeat and hopeful about the wedding. . . . It seemed like a lifetime ago."
At the Kennedy family compound, a friend said tonight the "family is doing very well. They're holding up well, very strong."
A second Mass was said at 7 p.m. at the home of Edward Kennedy, and the family and guests consumed the catered dinner ordered for Rory's wedding. Although the family received so many calls that extra phone lines had to be installed, in conversation people made an effort to discuss routine subjects, avoiding the specter of another tragedy.
As people headed to bed, many prayed. And there was the relief of dark. "Now that it's night," the friend said, "we cannot see in the water."
CAPTION: Former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, left, stands with HUD Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo and others in garden of compound at Hyannis Port, Mass.